We have two big developments this morning. The first is that in a televised exchange with his top military leaders, President Putin ordered the country’s strategic nuclear forces on alert in response to Western sanctions and what he called “threatening statements” from leaders in Europe. That means as little and as much you think. It underscores that while the punishing sanctions unveiled yesterday are merited this is nevertheless a spectacularly dangerous international crisis. Not just dangerous in Ukraine but for the whole world. At the same time, Russia and Ukraine have agreed to hold peace talks near the border with Belarus. They are talks without preconditions.
There were reports of a massive tank formation heading toward Kyiv last night. It appeared that that didn’t happen or that it didn’t unfold as many feared. Kyiv remains in government hands. There had been a lot of talk that the sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States were insufficient to deter the Russians. But the scale of those sanctions has escalated dramatically over the last 48 hours. I’ve seen many knowledgable observers say we should expect the Russian stock market and currency to go into free fall tomorrow. If I’m understanding the news reports correctly the U.S. and EU have now frozen a substantial amount of the assets of Russia’s central bank.
By any reasonable measure these are acts of war, even if they’re in a sense only complicated banking transactions and regulations. They are merited given what’s transpired in recent days. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves about the spectacularly dangerous nature of the international crisis we’re witnessing. In many ways, the only thing more dangerous than this adventure going well for Vladimir Putin is it going badly for him. And it’s going really badly.
Russia’s forces are at least temporarily bogged down in what was supposed to be an easy fight. They are facing a choice between stepping back or ordering a campaign with the kind of horrific civilian casualties we saw in Chechnya two decades ago. European countries, rather than dividing, are falling over themselves to support economic sanctions and also directly supply arms to the Ukrainians. Even if Russia’s forces win this battle on the ground in Ukraine it is difficult to see how it won’t be a very pyrrhic victory.
As I said, the one thing more dangerous than this going well for President Putin is having it go badly. And it’s going really badly.